Judging the Royals

Can the Kansas City Royals clinch too soon?

The Royals' Alcides Escobar (left) and Lorenzo Cain celebrate Saturday's 6-3 win over the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The Royals' Alcides Escobar (left) and Lorenzo Cain celebrate Saturday's 6-3 win over the Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla. AP

Once again it’s early on a Sunday morning and I’m trying to wake up by sticking a Folgers I.V. in my arm. I’m staring at schedules and won-loss records; you wouldn’t think adding them up would be that hard, but at this point in a morning I’m not sure I could name all my kids — and I’ve only got three of them.

Bear with me.

Saturday night the Royals won their 80th game; Sunday morning they have 14-game lead in the American League Central. Here’s why those numbers might scare a Royals fan.

In 2014 the Royals were not the best team that made it to the playoffs; they were the hottest team that made it to the playoffs. They beat the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card game and then swept the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles, two teams that had better records than the Royals.

The Royals now have the best record in the American League, but having the best record is no guarantee of victory once you get to the playoffs. Teams that come into October hot have an advantage.

Do the Royals need to win 100 games?

In 2014 the Angels and Orioles clinched their divisions in mid-September. Baseball history is filled with teams that clinched early and then could not get their edge back once they made it to the playoffs.

One theory I’ve heard is that once the Royals clinch their division, they should set another goal; like winning 100 games. Find a way to keep your edge, find something to strive for, come into the playoffs playing good baseball.

Do not come into October flat and let a lesser team send you home early.

Why these games are still meaningful

If the playoffs started today, the Royals, Astros and Blue Jays would be division winners; the Wild Card game would feature the Yankees and Rangers.

Assuming the caffeine did its trick and I counted right, in 2015 every one of those teams has a winning record against the Royals. Collectively, the Royals have gone 10-16 against the other likely playoff teams.

Look at the away games — games where the Royals fly-ball pitchers had to compete in smaller ballparks — and the record looks even worse; 3-11. When playing those same teams at home, the Royals are 7-5. So it seems likely that Kansas City needs home-field advantage; they want that extra game to be in spacious Kauffman Stadium.

Kansas City is dead-last in the AL when it comes to home runs. Toronto is No. 1, Houston is No. 2, the Yankees are No. 4 and the Rangers are No. 7 when it comes to the long ball. When the games are played in smaller parks, Kansas City might be at a disadvantage.

Even though Kansas City has that 14-game lead, these games are still meaningful. They’re not just trying to win the division; they also need to maintain home-field advantage.

How Alcides Escobar messed up a Ben Zobrist at bat

In Saturday night’s contest Alcides Escobar once again went after the first pitch of the game and hit a fly ball to Tampa Bay’s Daniel Nava. When the first batter of an inning makes an out on one pitch, old-school guys think the second batter needs to take at least one strike — you can’t let a pitcher get two-thirds of the way through an inning on two pitches.

Apparently Ben Zobrist is really old-school, because he took three strikes. Look in the scorebook and you see Zobrist struck out looking, but he was trying to make Tampa Bay’s starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi work. The more the starting pitcher works, the sooner he comes out of the game. Odorizzi threw 92 pitches and didn’t make it through the fifth inning.

News-school guys don’t believe in giving away an at-bat and will go up hacking right away. Pay attention and you’ll see which guys are working the pitcher and which guys think being aggressive is a better approach.

Paul’s take on Mike Moustakas

Saturday night I went over to a buddy’s house to watch the Royals-Rays game and asked my son Paul to watch the game at home, just in case I missed something important. (And, yes, beer was involved.) Here’s what Paul came up with:

Mike Moustakas has been on a tear lately, hitting .500 with two homers and 11 RBI in over the last week. Of course Royals fans remember Moose’s up-and-down trajectory over the past two seasons. After a year-long slump in 2014 in which he hit .212 — his worst-hitting season in the majors — Moose came alive in the playoffs last year with several big hits to spur the Royals’ October run.

Moose started off red-hot this year, looking like one of the best players in baseball for the first month, but around the All-Star break he started to show some of his old troubles at the plate: chasing pitches out of the zone, and looking to pull everything thrown to him.

During his recent surge at the plate, Moose has talked about the importance of letting his hands doing the work, which emphasizes staying back and hitting the ball where it’s pitched, rather than opening up and trying to pull everything to the right side. Moose’s offensive performance during Saturday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays showed how good he can be when he does this.

In the top of the fourth inning, Moose came to the plate with the Royals up 1-0, and runners on first and third. Rays starter Jake Odorizzi threw Moose a first-pitch splitter that stayed out over the plate, and Moose pulled it hard down into the right-field corner for an RBI double. In the past we’ve seen Moose get big eyes on pitches like these and fly open, trying to crush a three-run blast and instead fouling it off or popping up. But in this case, Moose stayed calm with his body, let his hands do the work, and his natural power carried the ball down into the corner.

In the top of the fifth, Moose again came to the plate during a rally. The Royals gave up the lead in the bottom of the fourth, but Kendrys Morales singled to drive in a run to the tie the game and put runners at first and second. After battling to a 1-2 count, Moose got a fastball away from Odorizzi and instead of trying to pull it, he waited on it, used his hands, and shot a double the other way, scoring Lorenzo Cain and moving Morales to third.

To top it all off, Moose provided the final insurance run for the KC victory in the ninth by waiting on a 97-mph fastball away from Enny Romero, which he drove back up the middle for an RBI single.

Moose’s performance on Saturday night showed the commitment he has made to being more patient at the plate and using his hands. His three hits, each in RBI situations, were sprayed to the three different parts of the field, and that he doubled both to the pull side and the opposite field is more evidence of his bat-speed and natural power. When he hits the ball where it’s pitched and doesn’t try to force power with over-aggressive pull swings, Moose looks like one of the best hitters in the league.

We all know this Royals team has so much talent and potential, but success comes from two things: talent and consistency. Plenty of guys in the MLB are talented, but can’t find the consistency to succeed regularly at the major league level. Especially in baseball, where the season is 162 games long and guys can go on slumps and streaks seemingly on a whim, the ability to find consistency, and get back to what works when things are going bad, is huge.

Moustakas' recovering to his successful ways at the plate after a midseason slump is a great sign moving forward, and if the team in general can continue to find that same level of consistency, and how to get back to it when things are going astray, then the sky is the limit for the Royals — and Moose.

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